After watching the Rockies sleepwalk through the first two games against the Pirates this week, I proclaimed to my TV: “The wheels are coming off!” A few days earlier, though, after the Rockies went 5-0 against last years’ World Series teams, my TV and I discussed the possibility that the Rockies are the best team in the NL.
So it’s gone for me since May. One moment I’m watching the lineup chew through all-star pitching and think, “This is the best lineup in baseball!” The next I think, “There’s no way Reynolds and Blackmon can keep this up. Is CarGo done?” Holland obsessively fidgets and I calmly tell myself, “We have the lead. It’s over.” Then he walks the leadoff hitter and I wonder, “How soon after Tommy John can a pitcher need Tommy John again?”
This bipolarity isn’t unique to me, I suspect. Twenty-five years of false hopes, promising lineups, young talent, and hot starts have scarred Rockies fans with skepticism. But are we right to be skeptical of this team? A team whose star third baseman was all of two years old when the Rockies lost their first of 24 divisional races?
Maybe. If the wheels do come off, it will almost certainly be for one (or all) of these reasons.
1. Rookie Starting Pitching
Not enough can be said about what the quartet of rookie starting pitchers—Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, German Marquez, and Jeff Hoffman—has done the first two and a half months of the season. As of June 14, the Rooktet was 24-9 with a 3.68 combined ERA and 6.3 rWAR. Not bad for a group with an average age of 23.
But here’s the thing: they’re rookies. Rookie starting pitchers don’t typically sustain that kind of production. Look no further than the NL West: Clayton Kershaw ended his rookie campaign with a 4.26 ERA and a WHIP of almost 1.5 in 22 starts. Zack Greinke’s ERA in his debut was 3.97. Do the Rockies have even one Kershaw or Greinke in this rookie class? Unlikely. The bottom will drop out at some point. After Sunday and Monday’s outings for Senzatela and Freeland (seven combined first-inning runs), we may already be seeing the start of the slide.
2. The NL West is good
Here are the teams with the five best records in the national league as of June 14:
3. Diamondbacks (0.5 GB)
4. Nationals (1.5 GB)
5. Brewers (7 GB)
The Rockies’ only current competitors for a playoff spot are in their own division. The good news is the Rockies will largely control their own destiny—13 of their 28 games in September are against the Dodgers and D-backs. One week-long slump, though, could leave them out of the playoffs entirely. Plus, the bottom two teams in the division are still dangerous. The Rockies have struggled against the Padres this year, scraping by with a 5-4 split. The Giants haven’t provided nearly as much resistance in what looks to be a down year, but with that core of pitching and veterans, San Francisco will look to play spoiler.
3. Hitting Anomalies
If Charlie Blackmon were to quit the team to pursue trichology, Mark Reynolds would be the Rockies’ unanimous MVP so far. Going into Wednesday, he was hitting .305 with 17 HRs, 54 RBI, and an OPS of .958. Unquestionably All-Star numbers.
Let’s not forget, though, that Reynolds is a 33-year-old signed to be a backup with a career .237 BA and a nearly 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Is it possible that Reynolds, now in his 11th season, has been resurrected as a slugger with better hand-eye coordination and plate discipline? If the first two and a half months are predictive, then yes—we’ve witnessed a miracle. Otherwise, he’s on a fortuitous hot streak that probably won’t last through September. If he settles in closer to his career averages, the Rockies are going to see a major hit to their run production.
The Rockies have gotten abnormal production from other places, too. Before hitting the DL, Gerardo Parra was hitting .318 with an .828 OPS—a full hundred points above his career average. The trio of Senzatela, Freeland, and Tyler Chatwood has hit .215 with a HR and six RBI. The pitching staff in general has excelled at situational hitting, too, helping Blackmon pile up RBI from the leadoff spot.
It seems unlikely that all of these hitting trends will continue through September.
4. A Bolt of Lightning
As with all sports teams, the Rockies—as exciting as they are right now—are still vulnerable to chance.
There will be a stretch where the Rockies’ grit is tested. They’ll get hit with more injuries, swept by a bottom feeder, look out of sorts. How will they respond? Will they have enough, in the end, to weather a jolt to the momentum?
I think they will. Here’s why.
Sensational rookie pitching, a surprising MVP candidate (Blackmon), unexpected contributions from Reynolds and Parra, the best free agent signing of 2017 (Holland)—what hasn’t gone right for the Rockies this year?
A lot, actually.
The Rockies started the year with three starters on the DL, including their biggest off-season investment, Ian Desmond. They lost 14-game winner Chad Bettis during Spring Training and their best pitcher, Jon Gray, after just three starts. Arguably their second and third best pitchers coming into the season—Tylers Anderson and Chatwood—have been wildly inconsistent. Trevor Story and Carlos Gonzalez have been bad; Desmond and DJ LeMahieu have been mediocre. Heck, Arenado hasn’t really had a hot streak yet. The middle relief has been shaky, too, including Mike Dunn’s recent hiccups.
Despite all of these obstacles, the Rockies finished the second week of June with 42 wins. They haven’t been winning because everything has gone right—they’re winning despite the many things that have gone wrong.
The Rockies currently have more major-league players than roster spots. In the outfield, for example, there are three all-stars and three quality replacements: CarGo, Blackmon, and Desmond; Parra, Raimel Tapia, and David Dahl. When Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson come off the DL, the Rockies will have seven quality starting pitchers, with an eighth (Bettis) back this year, most likely. Tom Murphy is ready, but Tony Wolters and Ryan Hanigan have played so well that the Rockies face a conundrum behind the plate.
These are good problems to have. These are the kinds of problems that get teams through the grind of 162 games.
Defense doesn’t win championships in baseball. But it certainly helps keep things on track. Here’s where the Rockies rank on June 14th:
Fielding percentage: 2nd
Double plays: 2nd
Defensive efficiency: 6th
Clean baseball is often the difference between winning and losing as races tighten. The Rockies should have a defensive advantage over their NL rivals down the stretch.
4. Potential Buyers
Thanks to the strong start and depth, the Rockies should be buyers at the trade deadline. They have enough expendable pieces to acquire a front end starting pitcher, which would allow them to replace weak relief links such as Jordan Lyles and Scott Oberg in the bullpen with superior talents like Tyler Anderson or German Marquez. More realistically, though, the Rockies may look to trade for middle relief to solidify a much-improved bullpen. The Rockies haven’t been buyers under GM Jeff Bridich, so it will interesting to see what direction they go.
5. Carlos Gonzalez
CarGo is the Rockies’ wildcard. Say Reynolds does come back to earth; the rookie pitchers take a step back; Arenado or Blackmon slumps for a bit. CarGo has the ability to single-handedly carry a team through a few rough patches. Up to this point, the team has won despite CarGo. But if that changes and he gets hot (which does seem like a reach as I write this on June 14), CarGo could still have a big say in where the Rockies finish on October 1.
Unless the Rockies are 15 games up going into September, I’ll be scrutinizing every pitch for signs that it’s all about to fall apart. But they probably won’t. They’re probably good. Maybe. Probably.